What Is It Like for a Medical Student to Cut Open a Body for the First Time?

Med students in class.
Better be well-prepared for the first dissection.

Photo by Comstock/Thinkstock

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Laszlo B. Tamas, neurosurgeon:

My medical school was McGill in Montreal. We had nice, modern medical science and administrative buildings, but the anatomy lab was in a dark and ancient Victorian building with tunnels and hidden, unexpected places. This set a great scene for our first anatomy dissection.

We came slightly early for the session and watched the diener (a word I had never come across before, meaning an attendant responsible for corpses and dissections) deliver the bodies. He seemed like someone out of a horror movie from the black-and-white era. I wondered what kind of courage it must have taken to learn from dissection in the early days when corpses were taken from fresh grave sites in the middle of the night and carted across the mountain. Lucky we weren’t superstitious … or were we? We were all wondering what would come next, since the set seemed complete for some kind of Frankenstein movie.

We were assigned the body of a grizzled old man and given instructions and help with the sequence of dissection. Somehow, I was able to detach myself from the human aspect of the scene as we opened up the chest, then the abdomen, and onward.

I figured that I had the advantage of growing up in pretty remote countryside, where I had cleaned lots of wild game as preparation for food. But more powerful than that was a sense of great curiosity, tinged with a sacredness that others mention. What a privilege to be able to explore things we had only read about and imagined up to then. Maybe this was when my interest in surgery began, though I had no conscious awareness of it.

As the weeks went by, we began to know our cadaver better. Most teams gave their corpses names. (I think ours was “Fred.”) We could see signs of his smoking (in his lungs and on his fingers), a cirrhotic liver, wasting of his limbs (was he malnourished from disease or poverty?). There was a tattoo on one forearm alluding to his service with a Canadian regiment in the Korean War. We began to wonder about what a tragic life Fred must have had.

I have to admit that the more I understood Fred as a human being—the more his story was unfolding before my eyes—the harder it became for me to maintain detachment during dissection. I began to believe that a tragedy—possibly even an injustice—had taken place to Fred. A great sorrow came over me.

It was not a sorrow from seeing a naked corpse in the starkest possible way. It was a sadness felt when this corpse became a series of stories that, when put together, represented a human life.

Fred was probably homeless. He must have spent many a cold night sitting near heat vents in the cold Montreal winters, since he had signs of both frostbite and first-degree burns on his body.

Probably no one cared enough about Fred to listen to his stories, to tell his tale. All that was left was the scattered and disjointed clues on his corpse—fragments of a life that we were probably the last ones to know. Anyway, it had a pretty big impact on me at the time.

We all become corpses. We can only hope that there will be someone who loves us enough to tell our stories at least one more time.

Answer by Michelle Sandberg, pediatrician:

It has been a long time since my first day of anatomy, but I have vivid memories. The first day of dissecting a human cadaver is an experience that most physicians never forget.

I remember forming a lab group with three close friends, which was a good idea—having people I felt comfortable with and could share my feelings with was important to me. I remember the four of us quietly thanking the woman whose body we were about to dissect for donating her body to science. I will never forget that quiet moment of contemplation and gratitude. I was happy to be with people who had respect for the body; I had heard of other people who experienced anatomy lab with lab partners who were ungrateful and did not treat the cadaver with appropriate respect. One of my lab partners was so overwhelmed by that first day dissecting a human cadaver that he went home and wrote a poem about it that he shared with us the next day.

My emotions that day were fear, awe, and excitement. It seemed like such a privilege to be a first-year medical student and actually dissect a real human body. I felt like a grown-up, like I was embarking on the world of medicine in a salient way for the first time. I remember thinking that this was a big milestone and I should take the time to remember the experience and the day. It was scary and exciting.

The first cut was frightening. Actually taking a knife and cutting into a human body is intimidating for the first time. The whole first day was a bit scary, as I recall. I worried about making the wrong cut and ruining the dissection for me and my lab partners and being unable to visualize our day’s assignment. Even though it was a cadaver and I knew there was no pain involved, there was a part of me that worried about inflicting pain. After a few days, it became less intimidating and more instinctive. I no longer felt afraid, no longer worried irrationally about causing pain, and I was able to focus and use the cadaver to learn human anatomy.

And feelings of gratitude stand out in my memory. I believe donating your body to science is a noble act, and I was in awe of the woman on the table who had performed this altruistic act. I had feelings of camaraderie with my lab partners and classmates embarking on this stage of our training together.

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